EVANGELION: Ascension of the Lamb
By: Dante Abbey

 Episode 32: "For in that Sleep of Death" / Doppelganger

     Darkness.  Save the half-disk of the moon reflected in the metallic sheen of a nearby building.
     Silence.  Save the perpetual chirping of the cicadas and night creatures' eerie whistling.  And nearer still, the soft clicking of the precision mechanism of a clock.
     Stillness.  A complete lack of visible movement, save a shallow but labored breathing and the accurate, halting motion of the clock's hands.
     None absolute, nor overwhelming, in the early pre-dawn.  But all three harshly dispelled by a sudden and short-lived yell, a flurry of activity and flying sheets, and a reading lamp flickering on accidentally during the rapid burst of flailing limbs seeking escape from an invisible and claustrophobic prison.
     Touji's hands clawed desperately against his chest, his shoulders, his arms, tearing away at the thin blanket wrapped around his body, seemingly compressing his lungs, impeding his ragged breath, trapping him in that limitless but squeezing chamber of void.
     The lamp's bulb died, the cord pulled from the socket in the wall, depriving it of the very sparking essence that sustained it.
     The near-darkness, near-silence, near-stillness returned as if they had never departed, settling back into their places.  Touji's eyes, now open, could see the faintly highlighted outlines of the edges in the room.  His ears slowly became aware of the chirping insects.  And the movement of his chest, now gradually returning to its normal rhythm, confirmed that nothing was frozen for eternity, as it had seemed mere seconds ago.
     What was that?  Invariably, he came to the conclusion that it had to have been a dream.  Nothing more.  The white-hot lance of pain, once again drilling through his chest was only an illusion.  A trick of the mind.  An outburst of unwarranted memory, a random collection of recent events thrown together by a cruel subconscious.
     This time, it didn't miss the entry plug.  This time, it didn't just sever the Eva's spine.  This time, the conditions were wrong.  The three and a half degrees of margin were no longer there.  In an intensely brilliant flash of blinding light, everything vaporized in less than a fraction of a second.  Again, he was unable to scream, his lungs didn't work, nothing worked, the pain was exponentially more powerful.
     That's when the darkness, silence, and stillness set in.  In that order.  The darkness was absolute, restrictive, occluding.  Rapidly chasing it was the silence; infinite, deep, deafening.  Then, the immobilizing and stifling stillness, crushing him, preventing any movement at all.  Not even the most desperately needed inhalation.
     Just as the panic in the oblivion rose to a crescendo, the simulacrum of death collapsed on itself, as a supernova falls into its own black hole, stretching itself beyond human imagination.  Like the resulting quasar, reality had exploded around him, sudden consciousness and awareness rocking him back into a calmer, less tormented world.
     He exhaled sharply, then took in the cool humid air around him.  Reason set in.
     I'm here.  Everything's all right.
     Was that death?  Was that what it was like?
     There was a burning cold shrouding his heart.  It was still difficult to breathe as he tried to come to grips with a feeling he'd never had very much of before.  One he'd only truly discovered recently, within the last year.  He realized what a sheltered life he'd lead, insulated from some of the harsher realities of life.
     This feeling...it was fear.  Cold, dark fear.  Fear of the darkness, the silence... death...the Evas.  Fear of this recurring nightmare that was now his life.  Death, resurrection, death, resurrection in an endlessly repeating cycle.
     The epiphany was stunning.  Even during...the incident...with Unit-03, it was confusion, a sense of being lost, of not knowing what to do.  The fear then had quickly disappeared, as he had fallen unconscious due to shock.
     He'd forgotten that fear.  He'd left it behind, with what few other memories he had.  Like the one of his mother's funeral.
     Groaning, he let his body fall heavily back onto the mattress, one hand probing the raw skin along the two shallow scrapes he'd somehow managed to dig in his chest.
     If they didn't scab by morning, they would undoubtably sting like hell in the shower.
     He closed his eyes again, resigning himself to a different kind of silence, darkness, and stillness, and hoped it would be restful rather than tormenting.  Nevertheless, with his mind so troubled, this would prove to be near-impossible.
 
 

* * *

     Stillness broke elsewhere.  By that time, in that place, however, darkness and silence had long been shattered, banished till night by the dawn and the waking inhabitants of a different dwelling.
     The rising sun was nothing spectacular this morning, though.  Dark, sullen clouds had covered the skies for several days now.  It was uncomfortably humid, and the lack of wind allowed it to get relatively hot for the time of year.  The early morning, however, was different, as the air was still cool from the night, and the currents were still strong enough to be called a breeze.
     For reasons unknown to her, Asuka was awake long before she typically allowed herself to become fully conscious of the world around her.  Life was far from predictable and mundane here, in this constantly moving city.  One morning, you might wake to find an unbearable glare reflecting off an extruded building of the central block blinding you.  Another, and there was nothing to see but blue sky beyond the window.
     And, of course, the Angels could break any attempt at routine, at any time of the day.
     Since sleep was rare on those occasions, she justified sleeping in as late as possible as a sort of preemptive recuperation.  Of course, that was just an excuse.  Shinji and Hikari both got along just fine without it.
     Deciding there wasn't much point in trying to fall asleep again, she got up.  For some strange reason, a long shadow fell across her bed, cast from a solitary figure eclipsing the sun on the balcony.
     Now why...
     Shinji was leaning against the railing, staring at the sun's dark orange glow filtered by the clouds over the mountains.  Intrigued by this strange deviation from his customary routine, she approached silently.  As she crossed the balcony to the railing in front of him, she mimicked his posture: arms resting on the rounded bar that topped it, her body leaning on her elbows.
     "Guten morgen, Shinji," she said quietly.  The serene mood that he appeared to have been enjoying didn't look like it ought to be broken, so she didn't try.
     Despite her effort, she still managed to startle him, and there was a mild spasm of reaction at her appearance within his field of vision.  "Good...good morning.  Um...you're up...earlier than usual."  Even so, his surprise wore off quickly, and he settled back into his former position.
     "Yeah...  Do you do this every morning?"  She stopped looking at the sun's surly glower, and turned her head to look at him.  His eyes stopped gazing blankly at the skies, and met hers.
     "No... Not really.  I just...felt like it."  He felt kind of silly, trying to explain something that he had no reason for.  "I...was just thinking."
     She smiled, throwing off her usual teasing tirade, reserved for him and him only.  "Baka.  What about?"
     He wasn't really sure what to answer.  It had just been a sort of running train of thought, passing through a large number of random ideas and memories, but never really stopping long enough on one item to have really thought about it.  He sorted back through the trail, hunting for a common thread, looking for something that would tell him.
     When he found it, it was surprising enough that it externalized itself immediately before he could stop it.  "Ayanami..?"
     Asuka found herself as surprised as he was.  She'd successfully managed to avoid thinking about...Rei...for so long, she'd almost forgotten her.  She could barely remember the long hours she'd spent thinking about the First Child, pondering in frustration why she was so special, so different.  So...strange.  The lack of comprehension still lingered, now that she brought her mind to it, but there was no longer the hatred that fueled the need to understand.
     "Rei?  What about her?"  This suddenly and unexpectedly brought a whole new dimension to the conversation.  Why would Shinji be thinking about her, now?
     "I...don't know," he said, leaving her face with his eyes, "She just seems so...different...when I think about her now."  From the horrible and chaotic cataclysm that was Third Impact, he'd somehow, despite his best efforts, preserved a litany of images, all of them highly disturbing.  Rei, in so many guises and forms...the Rei he thought he knew, the Rei that appeared out of the clouds in his powerless agony...the thousands upon millions of Rei's floating, swimming, drifting past him in an endless sea of choking laughter.  And it still scared him, more than ever before.  But there was that other Rei, so much like the one he'd known before, but more assured, more...like a mother.
     Could he tell Asuka that?  Tell her that Rei seemed so much like the long-absent, deceased parent he knew resided within the cold shell of Unit-01?  And how?
     And then, she couldn't possibly be anything like that, because he'd seen, with his own eyes, that she was his father's creation...creations, he corrected himself.  These confusing and conflicting images of so many different incarnations...
     What was she, after all?
     How to explain all this to Asuka?  Could he?
     She was searching his face for meaning again, and he found himself despairing for something to say.  He felt himself flush a little, and laughed nervously.  "I'm sorry...I guess...it's just because she's...dead..."  His voice trailed off a little at the end, "Just... what happened during...you know," and it died.
     "Oh."  Now he was making sense, she thought.    She, too, had some strange images of Rei.  The doll, the puppet...those forms no longer made sense to her any more.  Consequently, she found very little reason to want to hate the First.  And, there was Third Impact, the resurrection following the dream of death, and whatever role Rei had played there.  Shinji had reason to wonder.  Because no one would ever understand exactly what Rei had been, now.
     "I'm sorry," Shinji threw in, "I know how you feel about her."
     Asuka smiled again, and stood up, stealing a last glance at the sun, a few degrees closer to the zenith where it would be at noon.  "Don't worry about it.  Dummkopf."  Another name reserved for him.  "I'm going to take a shower."
     Shinji watched the sun as a miniscule break in the clouds manifested itself, allowing the true brilliance of the orb to shine through.
     "Hey, Asuka..." he said, turning, and just loud enough to be sure she heard him.  She stopped halfway back through the door into the apartment, and looked back.  "I love you."
     He smiled.  So did she, satisfied.

* * *

     Hikari wasn't sure why, but Touji seemed as depressed as her two housemates seemed contented.  He'd been quieter than usual, barely making one half-hearted attempt at a joke about what he called 'the newlyweds'.  He hardly even acknowledged the lunch she'd made for him when she delivered it.
     That certainly was odd.  If anything, Touji was usually highly enthusiastic about food.  He'd been carrying the nickname 'The Stomach' from as far back as sixth grade, when he'd hit the growth spurt that was still continuing.  She couldn't help but glance back every once in a while, to see what he was doing, during the morning class.  He'd spent most of it staring up at the ceiling, paying even less attention to the teacher than usual.
     That must have meant he was really being bothered by something, she thought.

     The roof would be unoccupied, today.  The dark skies that had hung over the city for a few weeks without really moving had threatened rain for just as long.  And wet food was generally considered to be spoiled.
     "Asuka?  What's with Suzuhara today?"
     Asuka began unwrapping the box that Hikari had meticulously prepared in the morning, as she did most mornings.  "How am I supposed to know?" she said, shrugging.
     Hikari sat down with her own meal.  "I...just thought you might have found out from Shinji...or something."
     Asuka rolled her eyes.  "Hikari, they're guys.  Guys don't talk about stuff like that with each other, let alone with us."
     Somewhere behind her, Kensuke was quizzing the two others on their knowledge of the various emplacements in Tokyo-3.
     "Do you think I should ask him?"  She poked idly through her lunch.  "I mean...he seems so...unhappy today."
     Asuka swallowed hard, trying to clear her throat before answering.  "If you really feel like it," she finally managed, picking up the next wad of rice.  "I still don't see what it is you see in him."
     "I thought I already told you," Hikari said, frowning in incomprehension, "you know..."
     "Yeah, I know.  Mister Compassionate, and all that.  I think some of the girls have bets on whether or not you can get the dumb lunk to ask you out before the year's over."  To emphasize the point, she waved the ends of her chopsticks in Hikari's direction.
     A yell of surprise and disgust echoed from Kensuke.  "How do they let you guys in those things when you don't even know where the armament buildings are?"
     "I'm sorry," Shinji was saying, slightly embarrassed by his apparently inacceptable lack of knowledge.
     "It's not important," Touji added, staring up at the ceiling again.
     Hikari looked over Asuka's shoulder at him, remarking yet again his melancholy.  "Do you think I ought to ask him?"  Maybe that would do something to help her cause.  Now that she thought about it, she hadn't really given him that much reason to notice her.  Yes, she made him lunch; yes, she'd shown up at the hospital...  But the former she'd disguised as being 'leftovers', rather than as an open gesture.  And as for the latter, she thought, wincing a little to herself, she'd used her rank as class representative to cover up the reasons for her visit.
     Asuka found herself more than a little proud of her friend's decision to assert herself and her feelings.  Before she could say so, there was still something that had to be done, and she turned to start chewing Kensuke out on his pitiful lack of knowledge in turn.

     Like almost every day since he'd finally acheived the ultimate, afternoon classes disappeared in an accelerated burst of time for Kensuke.  Hours waltzed past him at a rapid allegro, as did the content of the course.  It was impossible to concentrate on anything but the prospect of getting back into the entry plug.
     So far, in the week since he'd begun training, he'd covered approximately half of the non-integral weapons training sessions, with the rest to follow.  Of course, more advanced, close-combat weapons such as the prog knife would have to wait until his sync ratio climbed up a little higher.  As of yet, the dexterity required to operate them properly was beyond him.  Basic triggers was as far as he could manage.
     Of course, he thought, Shinji probably didn't use a prog knife in his first battle, either, and it looked like he'd only employed it during the second as a last minute resort.  So he wasn't too disappointed.  After all, good things come to those who wait.  Like himself.  Seven and a half months, he'd waited.
     And the "good things"...
     The chance to pilot an Eva...he knew he could do it.  It wasn't that hard, he'd already figured that out merely from the basic training.  He could make the Eva walk, even run a little unsteadily, from what the neural stimulation had reported.  The Eva could bend over forwards and backwards, flex its arms, turn its head...all at his mostly unconscious command.  The control levers were hardly ever used, contrary to what he'd believed before.
     It would be impossible to catch up to Shinji and demon-girl any time soon, they'd been doing it for a lot longer.  Even building up his skills to Touji's or the class rep's level was unfeasible within the next month.  He guessed it might take him twice as long to actually accomplish it.
     For some reason, Shinji and Touji seemed relatively lax about their knowledge of operational procedure.  Shinji didn't know half of the operations manual's contents, and Touji just didn't seem to care.  He winced.  Demon-girl, on the other hand...
     He decided that was odd that his friends didn't know, seeing as how it was necessary to know these things in order to successfully accomplish any mission.  Thinking back, he remembered that Shinji had actually disobeyed then-Captain Katsuragi's orders to attack the second Angel that had showed up.  The damage to Unit-01, he figured, might have been avoided if Shinji had retreated instead.
     Then again, Shinji had been acting pretty weird when he first arrived at the school, and had apparently been defying a lot of rules.  NERV operatives even visited the bivouac to pick him up.  It looked like he was even quitting for a while.  Twice, even.
     What the hell, he thought, I'm not going to end up like that, anyway.
     At that instant, the bell rang, and Hikari dismissed the class.  Correspondence duty had somehow contrived itself to fall on her and Touji for the day.

* * *

     The skies were still clouded that afternoon.  The long shadows that typically threw themselves across the sidewalk from the trees that generated them were dulled, and the edges were vague and indistinct.  Now that the sun was going down, the air had cooled somewhat, but the atmosphere was still hazy and oppressive.
     Hikari and Touji had disappeared, doing the correspondence rounds, leaving only the other three to walk back towards their dwellings.
     Asuka had already blown up twice at Kensuke for asking for clarifications about rumors he'd heard from someone or another, meaning she was dragging Shinji homewards at a pace he was unaccustomed to.  Anything to put some distance between them and Kensuke.   He had no problem in keeping up, of course.  Shinji's forced decision between talking with his friend or obeying Asuka waffled in both directions, putting a little drag on her rush.
     "Geez," muttered Kensuke, as he turned off onto one of the side roads, "How do you manage living with her?"
     "He manages just fine," she returned as he disappeared around the corner, shaking her fist at his retreating back.
     "Say," said Shinji, finally able to say something he was sure wouldn't offend anyone, "doesn't Kensuke live over that way?"  He jerked a thumb in the opposite direction of the road his friend had disappeared into.
     Asuka was still progressively calming herself, and her reply was still somewhat vitriolic.  "What, that jerk?  Yeah."
     Shinji shrugged.  "I wonder why he went down there, then."
     "Who knows," she replied, finally putting a temper under control and picking up Shinji's arm again.  "I think there's a geofront access over there.  He could have another session today."
     Shinji shifted the two bags back into a more comfortable position on his shoulder, then started walking again.  Now, it was less forced, and he felt more at ease.  This seemed to be the case for Asuka as well.  He glanced at her rapidly, trying to confirm this with his eyes.
     All traces of anger had disappeared, now replaced by a calm and gentle expression.
     Shinji did a rapid double-take, unsure of what he'd just seen.  Never, in all the time he'd known her, had he seen her anger quench itself so quickly.
     Still, she looked too happy for him to inquire, so he decided it was best to forget about it and enjoy the rest of the walk home.

* * *

     "Suzuhara...how's your sister doing?"  One hour into delivering the school correspondence, Hikari hadn't yet managed to ask Touji about anything.  This sort of question seemed benign enough, and she finally decided that Asuka was right, carpe diem and all that.
     She did sort of feel bad about abusing her privileges and power as the class representative.  Nevertheless, it was the only way she could think of to get to talk to him alone.  "I saw she was hurt pretty bad last year, and..."
     Touji's smile broadened somewhat into a sloppy sort of grin.  "Mari?  She's fine.  She's back at school now."
     This was somewhat surprising.  From the way Touji had talked about it last year, it had seemed like she was always near the brink of death.  And she'd looked that way, too, when Hikari had gone to see her on Touji's request.  Then again, Touji himself had ended up with some pretty permanent severe injuries, and these had disappeared -- or reappeared, as was the case for his arm and leg -- as if by magic.
     Touji's amused snort interrupted her line of thought as he went on.  "Yeah, she's been doin' pretty well there, too.  Good marks and everything.  Ruining the reputation I put together for our family as slackers."
     "You're not that bad of a student, really..," she said, looking across the street so he wouldn't see her blush.
     "You think so, huh?  You must be paying even less attention than I do to the school reports."  Touji shrugged as he pulled the last batch of correspondence out of his satchel.  "Why do you ask, anyways?"
     Hikari's halted in mid-step at the question, caught herself, and resumed walking at her original pace.
     "Last stop," Touji said, dropping the papers into the last mailbox on the route.  "I guess I oughta walk you home, huh?"
     "Well...  Thank you," she blurted, aware her face was probably a few shades redder than before.  Inwardly, she thought something might have been accomplished today, after all.  As they set off again in the direction they had come, Hikari never realized that she had forgotten entirely about Touji's earlier malaise.

* * *

     The command centre was typically a bustling centre of activity, and it was no different this evening.  Commander Fuyutsuki had made a large number of scheduling changes at the beginning of the week, which were not opposed, but openly questioned.
     "I suppose he thinks there's an Angel coming, and wants the best shift on the job when it does," Masaharu joked in a somewhat self-inflated way.
     Yamashita gave a curt laugh, along with the temporary operator occupying Arashio's place.  Dr. Robertson did not give any indication that he found any humor in it at all.
     "Instead of verbally flaunting your talents, you might want to use them," he said dryly, returning his attention to one of the many interface boards he'd been using to reconstruct the 666 protocol from what little remained after the MAGI failure of the week before.
     Desaint, who still spent most of his time poring over the piles of reports Shigeru had left him and his men, agreed whole-heartedly, stating that the activities Fuyutsuki allowed his personnel to waste time on was positively disgraceful, at least from an administrative point of view.  He was about to commend Dr. Robertson for his single-minded tenacity at whatever he was doing, until Dr. Robertson explained the 666 system as being a program to "keep bloody nosy blokes like you out of our business".  The ensuing argument had something to do with what right NERV had to hide anything from the UN.
     Shigeru and the bridge operators ignored it, even though it was right in their midst.
     "Has anyone seen Lieutenant Arashio recently?" asked Yamashita suddenly, turning around in his chair.
     Shigeru shook his head.  "No.  I haven't seen her since she left the training facility with those guys from Intelligence."
     Masaharu replied similarly, with a quick shake of his own.  "Yeah, well, you're the one who said it was her."
     "Said she was what?" asked Shigeru, confused.
     "You know," explained Masaharu, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper.  "Rumor has it Intelligence finally caught the spy."
     "Hey!" shouted Yamashita from the other side of the bridge platform, "I was just kidding!"
     "That's a pretty serious allegation," Shigeru said, scratching his head.
     "Will you two shut up and get something done?  And, Captain, it would help if you weren't encouraging it."
     Shigeru looked up to the heavens and muttered something inadmissible under his breath.
     Dr. Robertson did the same, and continued at working out his program.

* * *

     It had been quite a while since Asuka had last thought of her blood family...her direct relatives, other than her mother.  Outside of the...spirit...she knew existed within Unit-02, the one she'd never been able to sense since Third Impact.  She winced in memory, but did not suppress it.
     The feeling passed quickly enough, and she returned from her tangential line of thought.  Other than her mother, who did she really feel was family?
     She'd never really liked her stepmother enough to consider her a true mother, so she was out of the question.  The dislike appeared to be somewhat mutual.  Her father, well, he'd never placed much stock in taking care of her.  She'd learned to be fully self-sufficient, and so that was never necessary, either.  He did appear to care for her somewhat, though.  And he seemed to want to keep the family together.  But like it had been with her mother, her real mother, his work was always first.  Always.
     There was her grandmother, too, who had always been supportive, but Asuka had never seen much of her.  Besides, she had long since passed on, quietly and gracefully, as the elderly do sometimes.
     It was impossible to talk to any of them seriously.  They never understood her, or what she felt.  And the explanations she had once tried to give were never listened to, anyway.  There was no point.
     Other than the little melodramatic and stereotypical young-adolescent telephone plays she put on for their enjoyment, she'd had little to no contact with them over the past months, either.  If they really cared at all, she thought, they'd call more often, no matter the cost.
     So, did she have any sort of family?  In the conventional sense of the word?
     Well, she thought, Misato did try...
     She wondered what Shinji, sitting across from her at the kitchen table, had for family.  She knew he was the late Commander Ikari's son, but...why were they so distant?  And what had happened to his mother, anyways?
     "Shinji?"
     Shinji looked up from his work, and pulled his earphones out of their places to listen.
     "Hmm?"
     Asuka lifted her head off the table and supported it on the back of her hand, leaning forwards a bit.  "I was just thinking...  Why do you hate your father?"
     Shinji balked.  This was going to be harder to answer than any simple essay.  At least he wasn't being marked.  Officially, anyway.  He tried stalling, to hold her off while he tried to sort out his answers.
     "Why are you asking me this now?" he replied, stumbling a little.
     It occurred to him that he didn't know why he was answering the question at all, either.
     Asuka shrugged a little.  "Oh, I don't know.  It's just...you never really seemed happy about anything to do with him."
     Shinji finally managed to put something together in his mind.  "I...I don't think I really hated him, despised him or anything...  He was just so..."  His mind came to a screeching halt as he realized he didn't have any idea what he was talking about.
     There were so many reasons to hate his father.  For abandoning him.  For...whatever had happened to his mother.  For the Evas.  For forcing him to pilot it.  For hurting Touji.  For the dummy plug.  For the secrets Dr. Akagi had shown him.  For refusing his every request, even if they were to save Asuka's or Touji's life.  For ignoring him.  For betraying him.  For being such a cold, calculating, ruthless, heartless, bastard.  For everything.
     But he found no way to describe his father, to describe the way he felt.  He stared at his tea, watching the leaves float in irregular circles, turning on their edges, flipping end-over-end in the lazy, contained current.
     "I don't know," he finally said, "maybe I did, after all."
     Asuka waited in silence as Shinji's mind juggled his thoughts some more.
     In the moment of expectant calm, he came to the conclusion that there was no way he could really decide for himself what to think about his father.  Or Father, as it were.  In the end, he was still going to have to tell Asuka something.
     "I was going to tell him I hated him...once.  At my mother's grave."
     "You didn't, did you?"
     He shook his head.  No, he hadn't.  He'd splurted out something of no consequence to either of them.  It had meant nothing, come from nothing.  It was nothing.  'I'm glad we had this talk.'  Or whatever it was.
     Shinji was a little irked with himself now that he hadn't just gone ahead and said it.  He hadn't been, then.  They'd simply parted without further ado, and gone their own ways.  It wouldn't have accomplished anything anyway.
     But then...if he had truly hated his father, why did he obsess about what little praise or congratulations he could get?  Why did he care what attention Rei got from that man?
     "I don't know," he said again, uncertain of what, if anything, he could say to explain himself.
     Asuka didn't say anything, still.  She supposed Shinji must still be ill at ease with the Commander...his father, she corrected.  In any case, there wasn't much else to find out.
     "What about you?" he asked.  It seemed a natural thing to follow up with, although he found it particularly strange that it had come out without him actively thinking about it.  And now that he was, it was considerably harder to say much else.  "You...I've never heard you talk...about anyone in your...um...family."
     "My...family?"
     Shinji nodded.  He knew Asuka had gotten angry at him once, long ago, when he'd commented on her having a family after a telephone call.  He couldn't remember entirely, but he knew he hadn't said anything too inflammatory.  She'd started to explain something, but broke off to scream at him.
     On top of that...why did she call for her mother in her sleep?  Not that she had been doing so frequently.  But it struck him as being slightly odd.
     "Well...there's not much...  I can't say we're particularly close, or anything."  Shinji found himself rather surprised that he hadn't been anticipating a negative reaction.  He listened quietly as she went on to elaborate.  "Both my parents work at NERV's branch in Germany...Dad and my...stepmother."  She skipped over the word lightly so that Shinji might not notice -- she wasn't ready to explain that, yet -- and went on.  "I haven't heard a lot from them recently, either."
     Shinji, however, was listening attentively enough to catch it, and the possible significance.
     So...either they divorced...or she died.  He felt a light meniscus of pity well up inside his chest, and it rose, building strength.
     Asuka's short answer became silence, and her steady gaze unfocused itself a little.  Another feeling developed in Shinji, this time moving in an opposite direction.  He felt guilty about asking her to think about the sort of things that seemed to pain her.
     Not understanding how, he reached across the tabletop with his right hand, aiming to touch her hands that were folded in such a way as to support her chin near the top of her neck.
     Asuka barely spotted the movement from the depths of her reverie, and its purposeful pace revived something deep inside her, something she'd tried hard to forget.
     Her entire body jerked back in one sudden, reflexive movement, like a startled cat.  The chair skidded an inch or two backwards, and she only prevented it from tipping over entirely by gripping the edge of the table with white-knuckled hands.  The world came to a grinding halt, and everything ceased in an instant.  Asuka found herself staring with wide eyes at Shinji, whose frightened and astonished expression mirrored her own.
     Why had she done that?  What possible reason did she have to fear him?  Why were her memories still interfering with her life?
     That...world, that Shinji, that act...those were all of the past.  Even now, with the new circumstances, the new situation, it was impossible to believe that had ever really happened at all.
     Just now, he had innocently reached out to her, breaking out of his typical silence to comfort her.  But somehow, some confused corner of her brain had matched his movement towards her hands and throat as a menace to her own survival.
     She knew he had to have realized what this had meant as well, as his hand fell back against the table with an hollow thump, and it removed itself.  As it disappeared beneath the lip of the tabletop and his head bowed in remorse, she knew she had to say something, anything.
     Apologize.  She knew she had to apologize and explain.
     Mentally, she castigated herself, and not only for her gaffe.  First, because Shinji had just crossed an emotional barrier towards her, and likely, her act had pushed him back.  And second, because she couldn't bring herself to tell him she was sorry.  The first time, so long ago, had taken her an entire morning to compose.  But why now?
     The scene remained frozen.  Shinji, staring into his lap, at his palms; Asuka, staring at him, unable to act in her own confusion.
     Before anything more could be done or said, however, the strident call of telephone tore the air, and the recorded voice of the emergency public broadcast spoke muffled through the newly falling drops of rain.
     Hikari, who had answered the call from her room, broke out into the living room, urging them to hurry.
     After the Angel, she promised herself.  After the Angel.  I'll know what to say, then.
     Outside, a heavy drizzle finally broke free of the clouds, and painted the sleeping city with its steady wash of grey.

* * *

     Touji put the telephone's receiver back into the cradle with a resigned slowness that only emphasized his apprehension and unwillingness to put himself to the task ahead.  The public announcement continued in the night, soulless and uncaring.
     "C'mon, Mari.  Let's go."
     Mari noted the lack of enthusiasm, but said nothing for now.  Quietly, with a practiced speed, she dressed herself for the weather, and walked with him to the nearest geofront access point.  There, as always, stood a man, who would take her separately to her own, special, 'shelter'.
     Touji, pressed for time as it was, could only afford the simplest of goodbyes before he was forced by the Angel's coming to rush down the escalator into the depth's of NERV's installation.
     Even though he'd managed to arrange for Mari to receive the special treatment and protection in exchange for his piloting, he always felt so guilty about leaving her behind each time.  Even though she was better protected than any of the other citizens living in Tokyo-3, he knew, from his experiences, that very little could deter an Angel.
     Really, he felt kind of sorry for her.  Outside of himself, she had very little family.  He knew his mother had died delivering her, and that his father no longer had the time to care for either of them except financially.
     And, as he nearly missed a step on the escalator, he came to another realization of his own.  What happens to her if I die?
     This question had come to him before, for a few fleeting moments in Unit-03, as the entry plug was crushed.  Then, he hadn't had the time to analyze it, work through the consequences.  Now, it weighed heavily on his conscience.  Likely, his father would retain custody, but the way he lived effectively guaranteed that she would almost never see him.  As it was, they never did see much of him anyway.  She would definitely be lonely, and unsupervised.  Who knew what misfortunes might befall her?
     For all he knew, he might die today.  Crushed, vaporised, impaled, who knew what else the Angel could do?
     Of course, by helping out the other pilots, he was, in a way, ensuring that none of this would happen to her.  And he could prevent it from happening to his friends, too, couldn't he?  Kensuke, who could barely walk the Eva; and class rep, who, of all people, deserved to be kept out of this mess.
     Lost in thought, he almost missed the changeroom's door.

* * *

     Kensuke stood on the umbilical bridge that traversed Unit-16's broad chest.  Its eyes, which would have seemed malevolent to anyone else, glowed with what he saw as the anticipation, the joy of battle.  He smirked.  "You feel it too, don't you?"
     Outside, he was standing with a near-military precision in front of the monster, his monster.  Inside, he was practically dancing with excitement and an unmatched enthusiasm.
     My first battle!  My first true combat!  This is no dumb simulation!
     He watched as the crane positioned the entry plug in its place behind the Eva's head, and ran when he was called.  Once in the command chair, he removed his glasses and hung them on one of the chair's many extensions.
     And as the LCL and the neural link precluded their use by giving him a clear view of the outside world, his smile grew that much more.

* * *

     "Where'd it come from?"
     Masaharu turned back from his station.  "Unknown.  One of the battlecruisers happened to detect it.  It's generating a powerful ECM over a wide radius, presumably with its AT Field.  They sent a helicopter to broadcast this to us.  MAGI analysis indicates the pattern is Blue."
     Fuyutsuki arrived at his place at the summit of the command tower and looked down.  "How much time do we have?"
     "Less than five minutes, sir."
     "Launch the Evas.  They are to remain within visible range of each other, as their communications are bound to be cut by the ECM.  Equip them for maximum intercept potential."
     Shigeru looked up at the his Commander.  "Do we use Unit-16, sir?  I don't know that the pilot is ready yet.  He only broke the minimum battle-ready synchro ratio yesterday."
     "Do it.  We need them all."
     Shigeru nodded, then gave the command.

* * *

     Already, the Angel was beginning to glide over the city, mere feet over the pavement.  A burning pillar of light, it illuminated the rain-slashed city with its powerful glow.  Featureless and smooth-surfaced, it lacked any kind of limbs or face.  Not even a core marred the perfect blue-white ephemeral skin that seemed to cover it.  An opalescent glow seemed to ripple over the undisturbed and rounded creature in endless, pulsing waves of muted pastel colour.
     It moved on, passing among the buildings, undeterred.

* * *

     This being his first ever combat launch, Kensuke found the crushing acceleration both exhilarating and fear-inspiring at the same time, in much the same way a roller-coaster ride was exhilarating and fear-inspiring.  And that, he thought, was half of the attraction.
     He'd been assigned a backup position, at the rear of a formation he recognized from the manual.  Most likely was that this was due to his having been declared combat-ready only the day before.  He was happy with that, though.  It was enough.
     Once his Eva had arrived within the armament building designed to conceal him before entering battle, he had to fumble with the smaller, ballistic sniper rifle's interface cord.  Finally, he managed to get it inserted snugly into the interface in the side of the Eva's neck.  An additional targeting discrete came to life on the HUD before him.
     The front wall slid away, and Unit-16 stepped clumsily into the rain-soaked streets.  Water drizzled over the Eva, but this was of no impediment.
     Ahead of him, crouching in the street, were the four others.  In the lead position, Unit-02 hefted an enormous double-bladed sword that was missing from the manual.  He'd heard rumors about it, how it was a 'mere' progressive version of something else he'd never known about.
     Because of the Angel's jamming, he had communications links to the others, but even at such close range, they were garbled and the orange holographic boxes were snowy and filled with static.
     The Angel's glow painted the grey skies a pasty white, and from the way the shadows were being cast on the clouds overhead, the Angel's location could be easily determined.  Already, the others were beginning to fan out.
     Kensuke frowned.  This wasn't in the manual.  The Angel was to be attacked with a coordinated attack, and independent action was discouraged.
     Hikari's white Eva filed into a side street after Unit-02.
     Touji's static filled voice cut across the silence, telling him to catch up.  Already, he and Shinji had moved far up ahead.  It appeared they were going to move in a pincer attack on the Angel.
     Just as he began to move after them, the reflected glare from the clouds suddenly disappeared, and the Angel's jamming increased exponentially in intensity, reducing the communications signals to nothing.  One by one, the tiny orange boxes that were supposed to keep him linked to his friends disappeared.
     That was still no cause to panic.  As he'd been telling himself since launch, this was the real thing.  He wouldn't screw it up because he'd lost communications with the others.  No, definitely not.
     He adjusted the way the sniper rifle was sitting in his Eva's arms, then set off again.

     What the hell?  As the jamming increased, Shinji lost track of the light source, the Angel, they'd been hunting.
     He'd turned into a side street, to get closer to the Angel.  As he did so, he'd lost track of Touji, lagging a few blocks behind.  Kensuke, he supposed, was still following Unit-14 through the rain.  And somewhere on the other side of the Angel were Asuka and Hikari.
     He knew where everyone else should have been, but he was now isolated.
     Knowing it was futile, he tried to initiate the communications links again.  "Is anyone there?  Where are you?"
     There was still no response.
     Somewhere ahead of him, through the sheets of rain, a blurred red shape crossed the road slowly.  It could only be Asuka, in Unit-02.
     That was comforting.  At least he knew where someone was.  Better still, that it was Asuka.  Nevertheless, another pang of guilt speared him as he was brought back to what had happened just previously to the Angel's arrival.
     Reaching for her, like an idiot...that had been stupid.  He should have known better, than to attempt something like that without first asking permission.  And towards her...that part of her body...  Never mind he'd only been aiming for her hands -- he still had an image of them, folded gracefully under her chin -- it had still been stupid, callous, unthoughtful...  And he was sure he'd hurt her fairly badly.
     Not physically, of course...but emotionally.  He knew, as she did, what had been evoked by his careless act.  Not wanting to witness what his hands had done that day through memory again, he looked hard at the rain, trying to return his attention to his mission.
     Still, her reaction meant that there was still some part of her that remembered, and feared.  He didn't want that...he didn't want her to suffer anymore, much less fear him.  But what could be done?
     Unit-02 appeared out of the grey to his left, still moving slowly, purposefully, intently.
It took Shinji several seconds to realize something was wrong.  Where was Unit-02's sword?
     Without warning or hesitation, a pair of enormous grey hands swung up and seized the unsuspecting Unit-01 and its pilot by the throat, lifting it into the air and slamming it into the side of a building.  Plate metal sloughed off the armoured sides of the concealed missile battery, falling in a glittering cascade of dull silver.
     "Asuka?!"  The word hardly made its way past his throat.  He couldn't breathe, there was an immense pressure bearing down on his neck.  Why was Asuka doing this?  What was happening?
     Unit-02's four dull green eyes stared back at him expressionlessly as the pain grew more and more intense, squeezing tears out of Shinji's eyes.  He gagged in the cockpit, the sensation of his windpipe giving way and crushing under the weight of the hands reaching around his throat.
     "I'm sorry!" he screamed, as Unit-01's vertebrae gave way.  He suddenly understood for a second what it felt like to have his neck broken, and blacked out, the pain too intense for his mind to handle.
     The world collapsed around him, and he felt truly alone.

     Touji risked edging Unit-14's eye around the corner of the building.  It had been quite a long time since he had been barely able to make the Eva run steadily.  Now, it was easier, an extension of his own body.  Using the Eva's hands, he lifted the palette rifle higher.
     As he peered past the edge of the wall, his eyes widened in sudden surprise.  At the base of the massive, unused missile battery, sat Unit-01, very much like a puppet with its strings cut, a useless marionette.  Even its head hung at a strange angle.
     How was it possible that Shinji, the best of them all, had been beaten, apparently so easily?  There was almost no sign of a struggle.  Unit-01's armour was intact, the palette rifle apparently unused.  There was no trace of the Angel anywhere.
     The fear of death built itself back up in his gut.  He had attempted to stave it off with duty before, but the sight of the inoperative purple Eva, and possibly its pilot, fed it.  Having eaten, it re-emerged, roaring like a lion.
     Gritting his teeth, he crouched down next to his fallen comrade, and fought back against the fear.  The streets were silent.  With the communications nets being blocked, the quiet was even more intense.  Even the rain he could see falling outside made no sound.  Only the persistent and continuously modulating buzz of the entry plug's systems could be heard.  He thought he hated the silence.
     He looked around, trying to figure out where the Angel could have gone.  Surely, in the minute and a half he'd lost track of Shinji, it couldn't have overpowered him and escaped that far away.
     Most certainly, it was lurking around, searching for another victim.
     He wished Kensuke had followed him more closely.  He could have used some backup.
     Almost as if in answer to his prayer, it was Unit-16 that appeared out of the rain.  He allowed himself a short smirk.  Now, with Kensuke, he'd be able to set up some kind of defense against this super-powerful Angel.
     Taking his Eva's right hand off the palette rifle's trigger, he waved Unit-16 towards him, motioning it to be careful and crouch lower.
     Suddenly, in a burst of speed and sureness that was certainly beyond any rookie in an Eva, Unit-16 closed the gap between them, pinning the black Eva up against the shattered wall of the missile battery.
     In his surprise, Touji and the Eva dropped the palette rifle.  It fell to the ground and clattered against Shinji's.
     A sharp, burning pain, not unlike that he'd felt before, the last time, dug its way through his chest.  As Unit-14 was sent flying through the air and skidding down the street, its umbilical cord cut, more than half the electrical cells damaged, Touji suddenly understood what had happened to Shinji.
     Unit-14 landed heavily, and despite the pain throbbing in his chest, Touji tried to heave the colussus to its feet.  But there was too much damage, and the already leaking power cells died.  Before the world cut out with the synchronization, he caught a glimpse of the grey and green Unit-16 staring at him, as if proud of its handiwork.

     Kensuke had been trying to locate the others for several minutes.  They'd disappeared somewhere up the street, and he hadn't seen any sign of either the purple or the black Eva.
     Still moving as stealthily as he could with his paltry synchro ratio, he poked the barrel of the rifle out around the corner.  Nothing.  The Angel's absence was starting to frustrate him.  He'd seen two Angels already, and from those observations and according to Shinji and demon-girl said, they were always different.  There was no way to predict what the next one might look like.
     He looked back up at the clouds, hoping the Angel might send off its brilliant signal again, and betray itself to him.  Almost too conveniently, the sky lit up in a shining white, then died again.
     Without thinking about possible reasons for the short burst of light, he rushed towards it like a man possessed.  Upon his arrival, however, he was disappointed to find that the Angel had long since departed.  The only other thing in the intersection was Unit-14, arrived to investigate as well.  Unable to talk with Touji, as the jamming was stronger than ever, he made the Eva give an awkward shrug, then turned away.  He looked up to the skies again, trying to see if the Angel would send off its flash yet another time.
     He sucked in his breath as it happened again.  This time, the flash was very bright, very close, and he saw his own Eva's silhouette dancing across the clouds.
     Shit, no!
     His mind screamed out at him to react.  The Angel had managed to position itself between him and Unit-14.  Suddenly, a massive lance of white rammed out through his Eva's torso, pointing up to the heavens.  The right side of his chest cramped and contracted in sympathy, and he gasped with the pain.
     Trying to turn the Eva around was difficult, he didn't have the control he knew he should have had, but he managed to bring the sniper rifle up to point directly at the Angel's midsection.
     Three times he squeezed the trigger.  Each time, a gout of flame spat out of the rifle's barrel, sending an enormous charge flying towards his target.  Each time, they impacted against the Angel's AT Field, not damaging it in the least.
     The Angel, a pure, glowing white, advanced on him and extended a pseudopod-like appendage which wrapped itself around Unit-16's head.  Unable to see for the blinding light, Kensuke flailed the Eva's arms, trying to strike out a something, anything.  Suddenly, the light disappeared, and the Eva was lying on its back at the Angel's feet.
     The pseudopod retracted itself, and the Angel turned away as Unit-16 shut down.

     Hikari and Asuka had been following each other more carefully, when they had split off from the group.  Since the light had first disappeared, they had seen it reappear three times.  The first two times were merely short bursts, barely more than a few seconds long.
     The third had been much longer, and the three clear reports that had echoed through Tokyo-3's artificial canyons were clearly those of the Unit-16's sniper rifle.
     Evidently, Kensuke had stumbled across the enemy.  And since the ECM was still up, the Angel was far from dead.
     Recently, however, the jamming appeared to be dissipating a little.  Asuka waited as Hikari disconnected the umbilical cable from her Eva's back, then helped her install the new one.  She didn't have to worry about power: Unit-02 now had an S2 organ.
     "Ready?" she asked, finally able to communicate.
     Hikari's reply was horribly garbled, but understandable as being affirmative.
     Lifting the enormously heavy sword, Unit-02 progressed further into the city, towards the place where they had last seen the flash in the dark city.
     There was a stifled cry of surprise and horror mixed with static that issued from the comm line.  Turning her burdened Eva around, she saw Unit-15's umbilical cable bounce across the street, disconnected.

     Trying to follow Asuka, Hikari had never seen the white shape that had blind-sided her in a cleverly executed flanking maneuver.  Now, as her Eva was shoved face-down into Tokyo-3's paved streets by a force she still couldn't see, she fought back the wave of panic and resolved to do something about the Angel.
     Shoving the cockpit's control levers forwards, she willed the Eva's hands out in front of it, braking against the asphalt with its palms.  As she and the Angel both came to a shuddering stop, she managed to flip Unit-15's massive white bulk into a crouching position.  From what she'd seen fighting the 19th Angel, and from what her friends had told her, she expected the Angel to be another horrible monstrosity.
     She wasn't far wrong, but what she did see drew a gasp of stupefaction.  She could have believed she was staring at a massive mirror.  Before her, recovering its balance also, was the exact image of her white, blue-accented Eva.
     The second of unparalleled confusion nearly cost the battle.  The Angel stood, and came at her again.  Just as it closed to range for physical combat, the danger overcame her hesitation.  The true Unit-15 sprang up, ramming its boxy shoulder into the Angel's chest.  The imposter staggered under the blow, lessening the impact of its own attack.
     Where's Asuka? she asked herself, grappling with her opponent.  As Unit-15's prog knife came out of the shoulder mount and into her Eva's hand, she realized there was no way Asuka would be able to tell which Eva belonged to her, and which was the trespassing Angel.
     For the first time in as long as she could remember, she consciously yelled in anger, throwing Unit-15's weight behind the vibrating blade ahead of her.  In her rushed attack, however, she neglected the fact that the Angel, too, had somehow mimicked her and had drawn its own knife.  It stepped away from her charge, gripping Unit-15's arm at the elbow, and stabbed downwards.
     The advent of this new threat paralyzed Unit-15's pilot.  Hikari had never been thrown into any kind of conflict before, other than petty and easily resolved classroom squabbles.  Nothing of this scale or importance.  And suddenly, she froze, unable to do anything except stare at the rapidly descending knife.
     And she screamed.
     The knife plunged between the armour plates on her Eva's shoulder, pushing deep through layers of muscle and slicing through the collar bone.
     For the first time, ever, she felt pain in the Eva.  It was sharp, agonizing.  Rawer still than anything she'd experienced to date.  More powerful.
     Her Eva's knees buckled with her, and it collapsed, falling heavily onto the street.  The prog knife fell from the open hand and bounced skidding along the concrete sidewalk.  The Angel, above her, brought the arm back again for another strike.

     Something came together in Asuka's mind.  Hikari wasn't one to throw herself so forcefully onto a fallen foe.  Most likely, she was the one in danger.  But how to be sure?
     Unit-02's sword flashed into a striking position, and the Eva burst forward at top speed.  Unit-15, the true one, remained immobile on the street, its prog knife out of reach, its hands raised protectively.  The other, now undoubtably their foe, turned to face her, and lowered the knife into a defensive guard.
     "Take this!" she yelled, bringing the titanic sword swinging in a smooth arc from overhead, through the Angel's body, and into the ground.  The AT Field resonated in the air, but the presence of two others had weakened it enough for the weapon to penetrate.  For good measure, she pulled the sword loose from the asphalt, trailing chunks of tarry conglomerate in its wake, and swung it back in a quartering blow.
     The Angel's body bent itself around the leading edge of the weapon, crashing into a building and detonating violently in a massive cross-shaped explosion of light.

     After the light faded, they could see the early evening sky through the gap evaporated in the clouds.  It had stopped raining over them.
     "Thanks, Asuka."  Hikari sounded tired, after her first true engagement with the Eva.
     Asuka was about to respond, when she realized the other three Evas were no longer transmitting.

* * *

     Another unfamiliar ceiling.  But they were all the same, really.  Most of them.
     So far, most of the ceilings he didn't recognize all fell under the same category.  That of NERV's hospital.  The same one, just different rooms.
     Obviously, he was still alive.  It hadn't been his neck breaking, just the Eva's.  He was thankful for that much.  There was no neck brace or anything to indicate he'd actually been injured, so Shinji decided to sit up.  And why not?
     The room was the same as the others he'd been in.  As always.  The same, pale, blue light, the same beds, the same smell.
     He wondered what time it was.  Consequently, he also wondered when he could leave, get back home, to a place he recognized.  And Asuka.  What had happened then, just before the Angel's arrival?
     He knew he'd made a mistake...but surely...Asuka wouldn't have tried...
     Then again, the Angel might have possessed Unit-02, as had happened before, to Unit-03.  He knew something like that must have happened.
     The door slid open, and Asuka entered.
     "Are you feeling better?"  Given his current state of mind, Shinji wasn't sure what to make of her benign but concerned inquiry.
     "I...I think so.  How long has it been?"
     Asuka sat down on the bed next to him, looking down at the floor.  "Less than a few hours.  You're the only one who needed hospitalization, you know.  What happened?"
     Most of the incident was still clear in his mind, right up until the second he'd become unconscious.  Unit-02's dead, green eyes, staring back at him in his agony, while the hands just squeezed, harder and harder.
     "Unit...02...was that the Angel?"
     Asuka nodded, slowly.  The Angel had assumed Unit-16's form to attack Touji, Unit-14 to attack Kensuke, and Unit-02 to attack Shinji, according to the mission recorders.  Had the Angel been able to read their minds?  If so, it had specifically chosen to transform itself into shapes that its targets would not retaliate against until it was too late.
     Inside, it hurt her a little more.  If she was the one Shinji would never raise his hand against, why had she reacted so badly to what had happened earlier that evening?  The Angel's selection only confirmed what she already knew.
     She decided to get away from the Angels and the Evas, to get on with her purpose here.
     But there was something else that needed to be done.  Something very important.  Something that needed to be done now.
     Shinji had been sitting quietly, seemingly enduring her silence uncomfortably.
     "I never had the chance...to apologize properly before, Shinji."
     Shinji was pulled from his own reticence and he turned his head to look at her.  She continued to watch the floor, and he could only see a sliver of her cheek protruding beyond the stream of hair that flowed past her ear and over her shoulder.
     "What for?"  It was true, he remembered her wanting to say something before the Angel had come...but he still couldn't understand what reason she had for it.  This was his fault, wasn't it?  For something else, then.  But what?
     Her voice was suddenly a little defensive, and sounded chagrined.  "It's not that I don't want you to touch me...I just...please try to understand."  The auburn waterfall shimmered slightly in the light as an invisible tremor passed through her body.
     "I'm sorry," he said, quietly.
     "No!  Don't be!"  She almost yelled, and it certainly seemed that way because of the heavy silence that had preceded it.  Shinji froze in his sitting position on the bed, shocked into paralysis by the sudden raising of her voice.  After an interminably short pause, she spoke again, at a level that was less strained or imperative.  "Just don't.  I need this."
     Neither spoke for a long time.  Neither moved.  Neither breathed, almost, each afraid of what might happen next.
     The sound of cloth on cloth broke the air, its soft rustle incredibly loud in the still room.
     Asuka didn't dare to turn around to see what the source of the sound was, but something entirely different and unexpected forced her to do so.  She been leaning back slightly, supporting her body on the palms of her hands, which sunk into the mattress.
     Not unlike Shinji's first waking in the hospital, she couldn't at first identify the warmth that suddenly and gently covered the back of her hand.  At first unbelieving, as the only reason she could think of would have been so totally uncharacteristic as to render it impossible, she forced herself to look.
     It was his hand, resting on top of hers.  Further back, was Shinji, still sitting the same way he had been before, only his head was bowed and his face out of sight.
     In the frightened silence, the tiniest whisper, barely audible, escaped into the room.  "I love you, Asuka."
     To her, the statement seemed like a request, no, a plea for her to trust him.  Not like the previous morning, before all this had happened.  When there wasn't any distance between them.  It still hurt.
     There was a tightness around the edges of his eyes, a tightness he'd felt only rarely before, but quite frequently in recent weeks.  A single tear dropped away from him, landing noiselessly on the sheets.
     That alone was enough to push things to the breaking point.  Asuka reversed her right hand, so that their palms were together.  Then, slowly twisting her body on the mattress, she turned to face him entirely.  Without saying anything, she wrapped her arms around him, pulling herself closer.  Shinji shuddered once, then lay still against her shoulder, his hand trapped between them, and resting against her collarbone.
     She waited until his body relaxed in her embrace, then released him.  "I was supposed to tell you you can come home, now."  She dared look into his eyes, and found them to be still a little troubled.  "I'll wait for you outside," she added, hoping.
     Laboriouly, she lifted herself up off the bed, and stood.  She nearly made it to the door without looking back, but something stopped her half-way, and she turned to see him turn away to look at the window.  She had to do it.  Now.
     "I'm sorry, Shinji.  You just...startled me.  I love you."
     The door slid open, and she asked herself a question she'd already asked him. Are you feeling better?

* * *

     It is always more difficult to wake after having stayed up too late.  Touji was beginning to realize this was true, as he struggled to keep his eyes open long enough to muster the energy to lift himself out of bed.  As he was spending more of this vital resource on keeping them open than on moving, he inevitably fell asleep again.
     It wasn't until Mari slid open the door to his room that he finally was able to hoist his body into an upright position.
     "Touji," she remarked, "you look like you need more sleep.  You're allowed to skip school, right?"
     Technically, yes.  Allowances had been made for the pilots.
     "No, just wait a sec.  Let me get ready."
     Even as tired as he was, he was resolved to get Mari safely to school whenever humanly possible.  He would have liked to bring her home, too, but the elementaries finished a good hour before he did, meaning she always made it back before he could pick her up.
     Really, it made the whole exercise futile, but it was important to him, so Mari let him do it.
     Standing slowly, Touji decided that once he'd had a shower and eaten, he would be awake enough.  He realized, half-stumbling into the bathroom, that he hadn't dreamed last night.  This was most likely due to a recuperating body, but he was thankful for it nonetheless.
     Scratching his shoulder, he realized that the two red lines he'd scraped across his chest two nights ago were gone.  Maybe they weren't so deep after all, he thought, inspecting his toothbrush.
     Still, he could almost feel them a little, as they marked the place where 'Unit-16', the shape taken by the Angel, had rammed some sort of super-charged spear of energy through his Eva's chest.
     "Touji, I'm going to be late," protested his sister's voice from outside the door.
     "'M sshurry," he replied, his mouth full of toothpaste.
     He was sure that if the Angel had aimed just a little further to the right, it would have struck the entry plug.  As a matter of fact, that could be expected of nearly all damage inflicted upon an Eva's upper torso.
     His life, the recurring nightmare.  Death, resurrection, death, resurrection...  Two true cycles, and endless false ones, dredged up from some sadistic corner of his mind.
     Somewhere else in his mind, mixed in with everything, he hoped Kensuke had learned something from all of this.

* * *

     "Will you two hurry up?  We're going to be late!"
     Hikari, delayed by the tardiness of her housemates, was trying to get them to move a little faster, now that they were on the road.
     "We heard you the first time," Asuka shouted back, "and we're not going to be late!"  Hikari was a good thirty meters ahead of them, hurrying needlessly.
     Once sure Hikari was beyond earshot, she turned to Shinji, and wormed her fingers into his.  "Are you okay, Shinji?"
     "I'm...fine," he said.
     "That's good."

* * *

     Fuyutsuki looked down on the empty Cages from his position in the small office that overlooked them.  Unit-15 had been repaired overnight, with very little difficulty.  Such minor damage could even be overlooked, in times of economic drought, or because of time constraints.
     Only the latter represented a serious risk, but he knew it wasn't likely to happen, what with the predicted spacings.
     And the chances of the former happening were unlikely.  Most of the world's nations were now so afraid of another Second or Third Impact that NERV's representatives had only to allude to one or the other and the recalcitrant member would have a 'change of heart'.
     In the meantime, some of that money was being used to completely replace Unit-01's cervical column -- no small task -- and many of Unit-14 and Unit-16's bio-components.
     He handed the clipboard back to Shigeru, who had delivered it for review.
     There was a cough behind him.
     "Yes, Captain?"
     Shigeru pondered exactly what he was going to ask.  Fuyutsuki was apparently closing himself off somewhat, like Commander Ikari.  Whatever he was hoping to accomplish by this, it was having a definite effect.  There was a new respect for the aging Commander at NERV.  Even the rude and insulting Dr. Robertson appeared to have some degree of respect for the man, no mean feat.
     "There have been a lot of rumours about external saboteurs and intelligence activites...I was wondering if there was anything I should know about."
     That was a good way to put it.  That way, it appeared that he was doing his job.
     "The issue has been dealt with.  There's not much else I can say."
     Evidently, he wasn't going to learn much.
     "There were also a few rumors about Lieutenant Arashio..."
     "It's all in Section Two's hand's now."

* * *

     Pandemonium broke out immediately after Hikari dismissed the class for lunch.
     Almost immediately, Kensuke had begun to recount his first sortie in the Eva, describing in heavily over-dramatized and superfluous detail every aspect of his misadventure.  Evidently, he had suffered no ill effects from being thrown around by the Angel.
     Both Shinji and Touji pretended to listen as they ate.  True, Kensuke usually had something interesting to say, but over the last few weeks, there was nothing out of him except Eva, Eva, Eva.  Neither of his friends had the heart to tell him it was old news: both of them already had more experience with them than they cared for, and more knowledge than they wanted.
     Only Asuka had remarked, loudly and scornfully, that it was getting lame, and that he should shut up.
     Kensuke either didn't notice or didn't care.
     Touji saw it as a regular occurrence.
     As for Shinji...after eating, he'd simply crossed his arms on his desk and buried his face in them up to his nose.  The only sign that he was still somewhat conscious of the world around him came from the occasional nod or shake of his head to indicate he agreed or disagreed with something Kensuke had just said.
     From her commanding position at the centre of a group of girls, Asuka could only catch the odd glimpse of him through the throng. 1